Paathras from Tamrapatras
- Katyayani Kanak
e-mail: email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
November 24, 2021
A statuesque dancer walking backward on the four outer sides of the stage with her hands held up symbolising the sankha and chakra - from her back, left profile, frontal view and right profile in that order emerges the sense of the complete, the all-encompassing, the Vaikuntha. A lengthy maalai (garland) in mustard and yellow becomes a "co-performer" in a re-counting of all the ten avataras of Vishnu - the earth which Varaha lifts or the Lakshman Rekha. Krishna pleads with his "Priye," the "Charusheele," in a single stream of rectangular light - to me it appeared to be light spilling from a lit room onto the dark courtyard through a single open door -- and takes her away into the dark, into their world, in which only the two exist.
These are only some of the imageries that remained with me when I experienced "Neelam," a production by Dr. Anita Ratnam, which she had presented in Hyderabad around 2011. The way they stayed with me often made me wonder, amongst other things, how a dancer-storyteller could arrive at such ideas and also communicate them so efficiently.
I found some answers in the 5th session of Tamrapatra, hosted and ideated by Dr. Ananda Shankar Jayant through Natyarambha. Choreographed by Anita Ratnam, this composition was set to music by Sathiraju Venumadhav while the scratch music had Srikanth Gopalakrishnan's voice accompanied by NK Kesavan's kanjira. Victor Paulraj handled the lighting set up through the session while L Subashri was the Tech Assistant. This Annamayya Sankeerthana, bespoke the intimacy in the relationship between Andal and Perumal. As intelligently interpreted by the choreographer, this wasn't the coy, yearning teenager of the 7th century that only dreamt of her love finding a happy ending. This was a self-made, financially independent Andal from the 15th century that had her own establishment in Srivilliputtur, and knew that her man would send her the Garuda (their limo of sorts), for their rendezvous. But I'm fast-tracking.
The session began with Dr. Anupama Kylash who led us into the world in which streams of devotion and poetic skills join hands with musical raptures. Speaking of the Alwars (those intoxicated with the idea of God), the Bhakthi movement, the uniqueness of Annamayya as a poet-composer, the fundamentals of Visishtha Advaita, of how Sri or Lakshmi is the only way to reach Mahavishnu - he being in inaction and she being the iccha or kriya Shakti, she also drew attention to the beauty of certain Telugu expressions - like sompu kalalu (brightness or the curve of the crescent moon) and konku (no English word works for this, only the Hindi jhijhak). Annamayya, she said, also threw forth the idea of Manmadhapuja, which had never been there until then. Anupama, as is totally expected of her, painted this colourful canvas for us to witness, enjoy and experience, thus preparing our senses to what was going to come.
I choose to not go into describing the composition or the choreography as both are best experienced first-hand. I would rather focus on how the composition became the playing ground for the choreographer's imagination, to layer it, flesh it out, make it her own and tell a story that is her version of the poet's version of the relationship between the divine lovers.
The choreographer took over the stage and along with her, took us, our imagination and our creative spirits on a journey abounding in historical occurrences, textual inspirations, cross-references, anecdotal inclusions etc. But what truly struck me was how she fleshed out the three characters that became a part of her narrative - Annamayya, Andal and Perumal. She included incidents that are believed to have happened in their lives and employed them in key spaces in the choreography -- Annamayya walking up the seven hills on his knees became the entry point. The very inclusion of the poet as a character somewhat makes the whole world so much more real than it would otherwise be - it is not a sakhi or aakaashavani or just the dancer in third person who is telling us a story. It is the poet himself, who happens to watch Andal and Perumal together lost in their own world and thus begins to wonder at how madly in love could Perumal be with her if he totally loses himself around her - Entha chanavicchitivo īpe nīpai vedachallī.
Anita Ratnam's fascination and love for Andal is quite well known. She has spent enough time with the woman-so-deeply-in-love to know her trajectory over centuries. Thus, she brings in the Telugu poet's Andal, the woman who has managed to get her man wrapped around her finger, over seven centuries, in fleshing out Andal as an idea. From her abode of Srivilliputtur, on the Garuda sent for her, she arrives having chosen not any random flowers, but Madurai Malli (also Jigartanda - think these things and Madurai will become more real to you, and thus to the audience, she said). Once she is there, they both are lost in their own world of banter, adorning each other, giving in to each others' erotic yearnings, with the poet constantly wondering how and why and for how long this will go on.
References from other texts became intertwined in the piece -- in Naachiyar Tirumozhi (Sacred Songs of the Lady), Andal beseeches her lord to become Narasimha and touch her bosom with those wild-cat nails; a specific posture from an idol at her establishment, in which Andal is seated not as a docile woman, but with absolute imperiousness, with an arm over a knee lifted and placed on the throne; the live tradition of Arayer Sevai in which Perumal is resting his head on her lap, and she is relishing the moment.
The motif of Varaha, which is a connecting factor for Tirupati, Srivilliputtur and Tirukurungudi (Anita Ratnam's ancestral village) was brought in when Perumal indulges Annamayya's doubts on how he is allowing her to be the lord's puppeteer and explains that the tatva of Lakshmi and Andal are the same, and that they are always adorning his heart.
Such brilliance in content-related ideas and choices accompanied an entire class of instruction in stage craft. A long piece of unstitched cloth transformed from a waist cloth for Annamayya to a saree pallu for Andal to an Angavastram for Perumal while a bowl with a lotus changed from being a parcel of goodies for Perumal to his own face to his very being towards the end -- it was truly fascinating. The choreographer's generosity in telling us at every stage what a certain movement or positioning or hand or torso or body would convey and how the dancer could manipulate it to express or change a certain idea was applauded by everyone present.
From basic postural related thumb rules like, "Don't take your hands up when entering, because if it's already there, there isn't anywhere else to go later," or "The arm on the audience's side should always be lower so as to not block you out," or "not too much sundari greeva here"; to aesthetic concepts like "taking an expression and advancing it as sthaayi," or how to establish a whole temple spire in one look or how to capture the entire energy of Garuda in one stance, or "to enter a world and luxuriate in the sensorial impact"; to how to exploit the light in a performance, by holding the body in a certain way or the face in an angle, or using a prop a certain way to shift from the outer world to the inner world - the participants took away a mountain load of aesthetic inputs other than a beautifully done choreography, and these are learnings that will greatly impact their own engagement with their art.
As is said in linguistic learning context by Henry Widdowson, "Text is only a pretext in language teaching," Tamrapatra as a concept does much more than simply spread Annamayya's presence in the dance world - it is providing participants with a peak into the brilliant, creative minds in the dance world.
Present there were many senior practitioners of Bharatanatyam from across the world, who fondly dubbed the session as the Famous Five A's: Ananda, Anupama, Anita, Annamayya and Andal. Perumal, as expected of him, must be watching and enjoying all the fun, even while in it.
Katyayani Kanak is a Kuchipudi practitioner and scholar, who also loves to write and curate.
It takes a lifetime to learn, rediscover, develop, and perfect a presentation style that is uniquely one's own. Anita Ratnam has done exactly that with her Neo-Bharatam technique.
On Natyarambha's Tamrapatra workshop series Anita shared her lifelong learning with students, and she did it with...
- great warmth,
- contagious enthusiasm, and
- immense magnanimity
in her interpretation of Annamacharya's rare composition on Andal.
It was an evening of IDEAS IDEAS IDEAS galore!
Exquisitely creative ideas ...
for a spectacular entry - for picturesque use of props and their symbolic significance - for creating a unique soundscape that tugs at your heartstrings - for dramatic application of light and shadows - for intelligent ways to develop a storyline - for methodical attention to character development ...!
She had done her work with utter meticulousness, drawing from numerous temple images from photographs and books, the study of literature with cross-references beyond the lyrics of the day, and bringing together a team of technical professionals who created a striking ambiance (she had made sure that even her helper who walked in to clear some materials was clad completely in black so as to not disturb the visual).
For exactly 1 hour and 1 min, she held my undivided attention, with layer upon layer of meaningful concepts about visualization and staging. This evening was a complete 'Thought-to-Theater' wholesomeness.
My thanks to
- Ananda Shankar Jayant for envisioning this series,
- Anupama Kylash for adding the literary richness
- Venumadhav who had tuned and created the precious source recordings before he left this world.
- the pandemic for pushing artists into this amazing space of learning and sharing.
Anita ... you should teach more ... LOTS more, because what you have to offer is unique and much needed and there are very few who can do it quite like you.
- Ramaa Bharadvaj (on FB)
Thank you, Ananda Shankar Jayant, for the kind invite to watch Radha and Andal unfold as never before in such totality. Dance students: Catch the Tamrapatra monthly weekend series!! Really imaginative ‘teaching' and dramaturgical exploration series for young dancers of rare Annamacharya compositions. The charmingly eloquent and erudite dancer-scholar Anupama Kylash sets the stage with a research-evidenced historical and literary context as well as parsing each song to be explored; well-known performers/teachers generously share their approaches, processes and ideas for choreography and dramaturgy. Further, dancers get notes and texts and music too! So, above all, it is a rare and precious opportunity to learn the how, what and why to think and do when making new work: learn to fish, not just be given a fish, as the English adage goes. Or, learn the recipes, not just eat a meal! Enjoy!
- Chitra Sundaram (on FB)
Anupama, your introduction was so involved and illuminating apart from the scholarly presentation with cross references. A very crystal clear approach to vishista Advaita in a few words! Superb! Anita, you took Annamayya's imagery and made it so easily accessible!! Brilliant and yet so enjoyable!! Not a moment of dullness, so much of drama and yet the sthayi was interpreted with exciting and fresh nuances. Thank you, Ananda for this brilliant series!
- Hema Rajagopalan
What an enjoyable presentation, Anita! Hema summed it up beautifully, agree with all her comments. Anupama, great selection and intro and Ananda - thanks for conjuring up this wonderful yearlong series! Looking forward to more.
- Mythili Kumar
Dear Ananda, Anupama and Anita, the triple A's of dance that took us on a beautiful journey into the world of Annamacharya, where poetry, music and dance melded so perfectly that I was transported into another world and another time and completely forgot about my own students who were waiting for their teacher to show up for class! The lovely introduction by Ananda, followed by the erudite and eloquent Anupama, created the perfect ambiance for Anita's amazingly off beat and original interpretation of Annamacharya's lyrics. As a Telugu speaking person who loves the language, I found it so refreshingly different, and beautiful, further enhanced by Sathiraju Venumadhav's music and vocal rendition. So thank you, Ananda (Bliss), Anupama (Incomparable), and Anita (Gift of God's favor - Hebrew) for a great beginning to my Saturday! I've been humming the song all day long.
The kind of ideas you gave are worth more than numerous lessons and must have opened up countless ideas/possibilities for the dancers. This kind of holistic approach is wonderful and has a more profound effect on the mind of a thinking dancer. Your presentation was beautiful, out of the box, unique, different, moving, spiritual, funny, and very evocative. LOVED IT!
- Rathna Kumar
Ananda, Anupama and Anita,
What a refreshingly different session...so many ideas to work on...the young dancers are lucky to have such an experience which gives them an insight into techniques acquired over years of experience... Thank you for sharing.
- Geeta Chandran
The workshop is pure bliss!!
- Yamini Varadarajulu
Thank you Anita ma'am, still in trance with the song and your abhinaya.
- Bhagyashree Manohar
Thank you so much for putting together this very insightful workshop. It has been riveting!
Thank you sooo much for the amazing ideas you bring in… In love with it already!
- Debsuta Roy
Dear Anita, such a joy to learn and get to hear and see your process. Inspiring. Thanks @Ananda Shankar for the series.
- Anusha Subramanyam
Enchanted, enamored, enraptured - Anita akka.
- Snigdha Venkataramani
Congratulations, Ananda, Anupama and Anita! The triple A's as Rathna akka superbly coined it, truly rocked. Ananda with her exuberant introduction, Anupama with her erudite elucidation and Anita with her classy adaa brought to life the beautiful Annamacharya Keerthana ‘entha chanuvu ichithivo'. Anita's brilliant depiction of the indomitable Andal was a treat. Omg Anita, I was in splits when you referred to Andal flying first class. Kudos to the gorgeous A's.
- Deepika Reddy
Excellent Anita. It was practical yet poetic and so many ways to use the body objects to convey a feeling / emotions. Thank you so much… Only if this is done can dance and dancers evolve along with the core knowledge. It's a 360 degree perspective.
- Chitra Mahesh
Great session, Anita. Touching so many aspects essential for stage performance.
- Sharmila Biswas
Thank you, Anita, for so beautifully sharing your passion for Andal. It was a treat to learn from you. Must read more of Annamacharya.
- Ketu Katrak
Dear Anita, Anupama, and Ananda,
Thank you for the wonderful session! Anu, your knowledgeable interpretations of the poetry, the poet, and the cross references whetted our enthusiasm for the session. Anita, your amazing visualization of the lyrics, your admiration for Andal, her imagery, your imaginations, interpretations, the use of props and lights were very, very interesting and inspiring. It took us totally to a different world! We truly loved it! Venumadhav's music is a magic and Srikanth sung it so soulfully! Ananda, thank you for enabling this joyous journey for all of us! It was very different to return to routine work! Congratulations to the Triple A -Team!
- Bragha Bessel
Well, it's actually THE FAB FOUR
- Anita Ratnam
Why not add ANDAL & make it the FAB FIVE?!
- Chitra Visweswaran
Thank you, Ananda, for coming up with this genius idea of Tamrapatra. I just watched Anita akka's sessions and was overwhelmed and touched by her own relationship with Andal which transmitted so effectively to all of us. Thank you, for taking us on this wondrous journey of imagination and learning. Anupama, you were as usual so inspiring!
- Rama Vaidyanathan
Thank you, Anita akka, and your whole team for giving so generously of your passion, knowledge, and mastery with so much love and enthusiasm. Thank you for allowing us to be in the world of Andal's and Venkateshwara's love these two days. I truly got great joy and peace dancing with you. And thank you to Anupama garu for all you shared so lovingly that really makes me want to keep listening to you... and thank you to the Natyarambha team for creating this great series.
- Akhila (Kuchipudi dancer/student in NC, USA)
If presenting this for a wider, cross-cultural audience, not familiar with the language, the motifs and stories, can spoken word in a familiar language be incorporated during the interludes to take the audience through your experience instead of doing as an introduction? If so do you think a live improv rendering more effective than a pre recorded voice over? Brilliantly immersive and intimate experience. Thank you.
- Sandhya (Houston, TX)
Thank you, Anita ji, for sharing your thoughts and choreography and your deep love for Andal with us. My question is - what are some modifications that one must keep in mind if you were to do this work as an offering in front of the Lord or Andal inside a temple?
- Sruthi Mohan (Austin, TX)
This is new experience learning about lighting and the versatility in using lights. We all know so much thought goes into a choreography, considering music, rhythm and poetry. In the new age, there are other points, like lighting, stage, ambience etc. I feel that we all need to learn these additional aspects.
- Sreedevi Dadithota
Anita akka, your interpretation is divine and complete. Loved the connections of slokas I sing.. kumkumankita vakshasam from Krishnashtakam, kamalakucha choochuka kumkumatho in the stothram in Venkateswara Suprabhatham, Neelathunga sthanagiri thati .. Loved your lighting and props! So beautiful, graceful, and truly immersive and divine.
- Sandy Kode
An experience that leaves you speechless and soaking in the divinity of Andal and Venkatachalapathi, and the power of our medium of art. Much gratitude to all involved!
A delightful Andal filled weekend. It was our sheer fortune and honour to learn about this beautiful composition from you, Anita ma'm and Anupama ma'm, with all the intricacies. Thank you for the opportunity, Ananda ma'm and Natyarambha. Looking forward for more!
- Sravya Subramanyam
Namaskarams to Ananda akka & team Natyarambha for curating such a beautiful, meaningful series. Thank you, Dr Anupama ji, for your brilliant delineation of the song. My namaskarams and thanks to Dr Anita Ratnam akka for inspiring us to think beyond the usual.
Anita akka, thank you so much for taking us through the very beautifully unique approach to movement, choreography; the use of music, props and lighting. I am looking forward to working on the piece. A big heartfelt thanks to Anupama ji for her detailed explanations and to Ananda akka for organising the workshops.
- Deepa Raghavan
What an exciting session! Anita Akka, you are truly one of a kind - what a presence! Couldn't take my eyes off you. So many takeaways! Congratulations, team. The technicals were flawless.
- Sneha Magapu
Fantastic session, Didi. Thank you so much.
Flawless tech @Aditi Rao and team Narthaki.
- Surya Rao